Drilling battle heads for new frontiers

After collapse of Arctic refuge plan, Bush continues push for drilling in other sensitive areas.

The recent Senate vote against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) may have cost President Bush an important symbolic round in the fight over how to achieve US energy independence.

But aside from ANWR, Mr. Bush's energy policy has brought good news for oil, gas, and other energy companies – not only in terms of deregulation and other policy decisions, but also with the appointment of industry officials and lobbyists to key energy posts. Now the president is eyeing other parts of Alaska, and the Rockies, as places to drill – areas that oil and gas producers are far more interested in than ANWR.

The Interior Department will soon offer new leases to explore for oil and gas on more than 9 million acres on Alaska's north slope, in the National Petroleum Reserve west of the Prudhoe Bay facilities – an area that also contains coal and hardrock minerals. The administration is also preparing leases on federal land in large parts of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Mr. Bush's energy plan calls for streamlining regulations and the permit process for extracting gas and oil from the Rocky Mountain region.

In both areas, Bush can proceed without congressional approval, a fact that cheers his supporters – and worries opponents.

Debating Bush's 'Clear Skies'

Beyond the political argument, there's an honest debate among experts over the amount of oil that's available – and whether new domestic oil exploration can be done without harming the environment. Experts also differ over whether market-based approaches to greenhouse gases are an earth-friendly option.

In his nod to Earth Day this week, the president touted his "Clear Skies" emissions-trading plan as the best way to clean up pollution caused by decades of fossil-fuel-burning power generation. "Some of the biggest sources of air pollution are the power plants, which send tons of emissions into our air," Bush said in northern New York on Monday.

At the same time, he promised that his market-based approach to such pollution "will do more to reduce power-plant emissions than ever before in our nation's history."

But Al Gore – tanned, rested, and ready – has reemerged as Bush's main gadfly on energy. In a speech at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee on Monday, the former vice president charged that "instead of working to reduce air pollution, the Bush Administration's so-called 'Clear Skies' initiative actually allows more toxic mercury, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur pollution than if we enforced the laws on the books today."

Battling for a reputation

All of this is generating considerable political heat. Environmental groups, which had muted their criticism of Bush in the wake of Sept. 11, have taken off their gloves, branding him and his appointees as reincarnations of James Watt – the Reagan-era interior secretary and bogeyman of green activists.

The partisan nature of the issue is plain. Americans across the political spectrum consistently describe themselves as pro-environment, according to public-opinion polls – though they believe Democrats are more likely to protect the environment than Republicans are. So wooing those many voters – whether or not they're activists – could be an uphill effort for Bush.

The administration spent months fighting efforts by the congressional General Accounting Office and environmental groups to make public the record of who advised the president on energy policy.

It turned out to have been mainly industry officials – and some policy elements read almost the same as their memos to the White House.

Critics note that at least two-dozen appointees to positions having to do with energy and other natural-resource issues come from industry positions.

Bush supporters say this is just a matter of offsetting the imbalance in the Clinton administration's staff, which included appointees from the Wilderness Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Audubon Society. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, for example, was head of the partisan League of Conservation Voters.

Ecopoints for 2004

Still, Bush's appointments have given the president's political adversaries more ammunition, particularly since he and Vice President Dick Cheney worked in the oil industry.

"The Bush administration has loaded up with appointees whose careers have been spent representing the interests of the mining, logging, and oil and gas industries, and other corporate entities, and the results are exactly what you would expect," says William H. Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society in Washington.

Mr. Gore made the same point this week.

So at a time when Bush continues to enjoy high ratings, it makes political sense for Democrats to emphasize one issue where he's clearly behind. The fact that several potential Democratic presidential contenders for 2004 – Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry, not to mention Gore – voice loud criticism of the president is no coincidence.

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